As the recent homecoming week at CHS came to a close, I found myself constantly drawn back to the same question: why, in 2018, do we still play football?
A study conducted by the Institute of Medicine and funded by the NFL concluded that largest percentage of head injuries in high school sports can be attributed to football. In 2017 alone, 281 professional football players were reported being concussed, an all-time high for head injuries in the NFL. Repeated blunt-force trauma to the head, which is common in football, has been proven to lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease which kills brain cells and, with current technology, is untreatable. The study showed 110 out of 111 former professional football players who donated their brains to science postmortem were diagnosed with CTE.
As science progresses, research continues to reveal, by increasingly staggering degrees, the lasting negative consequences of head injuries. Especially for athletes who develop CTE, these consequences can become life-threatening.
So what is it about football that makes us willing to overlook these risks?
The answer, in large part, is not that football is exceptional compared to other sports, nor that it is somehow more entertaining to watch or participate in. We play football because it is no longer just a sport; it has become an integral part of the American psyche and a cultural symbol.
For many Americans, their football team’s success is incredibly important; it is a natural human instinct to want to be a part of a unified group and to support a force that one considers to be “good” as opposed to the plethora of antagonists that exist outside of one’s team.
However, the deep bonds that can develop between a fan and a team extend far beyond these bounds.
According to David Ezell, clinical director and CEO for therapy provider Darien Wellness, neurons in the brain called mirror neurons are activated when one watches football.
Essentially, these are empathetic pathways which somewhat convince your brain (and your body) that you are actively participating in the game. So, when we root for a team, we aren’t just invested in the players’ success: we see their achievements as our own.
Though many may argue that the brutality of football has a negative impact on the mindsets and the physical health of young adults, its power to bring people together and cultivate school spirit is grounded in science and has the ability to be exceedingly valuable.
One of the memories that I can recall most clearly from my childhood is attending a fall football game with my cousins in sixth grade. While the plays of the game itself and the hours that we spent watching it together have faded into obscurity, the image that remains imprinted in my mind was a moment that occurred after it was over and the game was won. As thousands of University of Illinois fans poured out of the stands and onto the massive concrete ramp that led down to the first floor, a loud victorious chant broke out, which everyone quickly joined in unison. Something about the magnitude of these combined voices, as well as each individual’s sense of perceived triumph, made me feel as though I had a deep connection with the body of strangers surrounding me.
I may not be the biggest football fan, but I think that this further proves my point. Everyone, in some capacity, has the ability to be caught up in the spirit of a crowd, and that spirit breeds feelings of unity.
Perhaps this is something that we, as an academically-oriented school district, forget.
Many at CHS will inevitably get caught up in the competition for intellectual success, which can create an environment in which each student is striving only for personal gain, sometimes even at the expense of his or her peers. Sports are the perfect vessel to, maybe only for an hour or two, dismiss these differences and bond under the pursuit of a common goal.